Controversy Over Hijab and The Perils Of Religious Bigotry


Written by: Taofeek Ajibade

“Uprising over the freedom to wear hijab, or not, is ugly enough in a modern society. But having school children endlessly embroiled in such inanities to the point of shutting down schools is uglier and disgraceful. As it is currently the case in Kwara State, the unsavory development makes a mockery of both education and the core virtue of tolerance that religion preaches.” Guardian newspaper


On December 12 2017, a Muslim female law graduate Amasa Firdaus Abdussalam was denied access to the venue of the call to the bar ceremony for wearing hijab. In the recent time, the bigotry against the use of Hijab (a head covering worn by Muslim female folks) is surprisingly on the rise. More surprising is the seeming latest theatre of war – the city of Ilorin, the capital of Kwara State in the North Central region of Nigeria, a hitherto quiet city with an exemplary serene and harmonious atmosphere for religious amity, was unfortunately thrown into the abyss of religious intolerance which was accentuated by some physical assault by the adherents of Islam and Christianity on either side of the divide. In just under one year, it has happened twice – first in February 2021 in Ilorin and later in February 2022 in Ijagbo – both in Kwara state; and twice, the government has had to shut the affected schools to prevent the ensuing breakdown of law and order. Female Muslim students in those schools had decided to wear hijab over their school uniform but the leadership of the schools would not have such.

Understandably, the refusal came from Christian organizations who have vowed never to allow the use of hijab by any female students in the schools as they were built by their early Missionaries, even though they (the schools) are now under the control of the government. This is in spite of the fact that the decision to take over control of such schools was backed by a federal law that ultimately extended to Muslim missionary schools as well, which were all similarly taken over by the respective governments of the states where such schools existed. Over the years, there has not been a single record of Christian students in such historically Muslim Missionary schools being forced to wear hijab, even as Muslim students therein wear hijab.

However, for reasons best known to the Christian leadership, there has always been bigotry and stiff opposition against the choice of Muslim female students to wear hijab over their uniform in public schools. As such, prior to this latest religious face-off between Muslims and Christians in the ancient city of Ilorin, there had been similar but less violent acrimony over the right of Muslim girls/women to wear hijab over their uniform, not only in secondary schools but also in higher institutions, especially medical and nursing schools. The opposition is so strong that even qualified nurses and medical officers in government employ are punished for wearing hijab over their official dress. The hazard or disrepute the wearing of hijab can bring to the profession has never been proven or demonstrated by any of the antagonists. For all we know, the bigotry and the ensuing mass outrage across the country has always stirred frenzied conversations on social media as well as other discursive platforms sparking a chain reaction of renewed bigotry among people – who only a moment earlier had been relating together peacefully – and resulting in needless face-off. One often overlooked reality is that Christians who are enrolled in Muslim Missionary Schools are never taunted or molested for not wearing hijab like Muslim students do in the same schools.

Historcial Background Of Missionary Schools In Nigeria

Missionary schools started in Nigeria with the arrival of the Wesleyan Methodists Missionary in 1842 when it established a school. By 1878, it also established the first Boys’ school in Lagos and the Girls’ school in 1895. It was not until about half a century after the first Christian school, precisely in 1896, that the colonial government of Lagos established a primary school exclusively for Muslim children.

“However, by 1906, the government had withdrawn its funding of (the public) school exclusively for Muslim children and consequently converted the existing one to Government School – open to children of all religious orientations and denominations… On September 4, 1922, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in Nigeria…made history by establishing the first Muslim School in Nigeria.” ibid.

Apparently, more Missionary schools were established thereafter, and the development continued till even after independence in 1960 with more missionary Christian and Muslim schools all around the country which were primarily envisioned, in addition to giving literacy education, to teach the tenets/cannons of their religions to the children of their adherents. In 1966, the military staged a coup and took over power in Nigeria. About a year later, civil war broke out and lasted for three horrible years with millions of lives lost. After the war, the federal government took a few steps at unifying the country and leaving no room for any primordial sentiments of ethnicity or religion which could damage the fragile peace which followed peace negotiations that ended the war. One of such moves was the establishment of the National Youth Service Corps – a mandatory one-year national service for graduates who are posted to parts of the country different from their original state with a view to further strengthening the unity of the country.

Similarly, in 1974, the military government also tinkered with the idea of eliminating mission schools in the country’s education system. This understandably was to remove any artificial dichotomy based on religious affiliations and put children to equal opportunities in education. The government of Gen. Yakubu Gowon, Head of State, passed a decree which transferred the ownership of all Missionary schools to the respective state governments where they existed. Since then, the religious communities – Islamic and Christianity – ceased to be the proprietors of the schools. However, government, in a honourary gesture, allowed all such schools to retain their old names which now makes the schools to look like they still belong to the Missionary groups they are named after; even though they are fully owned and fully funded by the government. Reacting to the insinuations that such schools are grant-aided (only receive grants from government) and so government need not interfere in its dress code, the Kwara state governor, Abdulrazaq AbdulRahman said:

“All the schools are government-controlled and fully funded; they are not Christian schools. No doubt, the schools were started by missionaries in Kwara State but in 1974, Yakubu Gowon’s government passed a decree taking over all the schools in the state, so, the missionaries lost schools to states. Kwara State took over the schools but out of sentiment, did not change the names of the schools like most other states did. So, when the Hijab issue came up in some states, they went to court and it was ruled that the students who wish to wear the hijab, could do so. Any private school can have their own uniform and insist on what their students must wear but female students in government school can wear their hijab, that’s what the court said.” Vanguard

The Reason For The Opposition Against Hijab In Public Schools

Many commentators have cited political reasons for the oppositions against the use of hijab in “Christian” schools. However, that position seems unsupported by empirical instances. It is instructive to note that while the opposition is most pronounced in secondary schools, it is not limited to secondary schools. Rather, it extends to even higher institutions and other public institutions. Despite court rulings in favour of hijab use in schools and a well-documented memo by the Nursing and Midwifery Council of Nigeria to all leadership of the institution, authorities in different Nursing schools have, at various times, continued to victimize students who choose to wear hijab within their campuses. It is thus safe to conclude that the opposition is borne out of nothing but sheer bigotry by some Christian leadership. It is also a testament that Islamophobia is real.

However, while this may be excusable in predominantly Christian East and South-south Nigeria, it is befuddling to see such in an intricately religiously mixed Western Nigeria where hardly any extended family exists without members in the two religions. If a family is predominantly Christian, a member in the extended family would be a Muslim. The opposite is also true. In fact, in the West, it is commonplace that a couple would subscribe to different religions. While the husband may be a Muslim, the wife could choose to be a Christian. And their children are usually divided between the two religions. In some instances, a partner has the upper hand and ensures the children follow their preferred path. In any instance, they all live happily within the home. What they cannot deny however is the subtle bigotry or hatred they hold against adherents of other religion outside their immediate families.

Thus, it came as a surprise when Kwara state, a predominantly Muslim state seized the headlines in national newspapers and almost broke the internet, all for the wrong reason – opposition against the use of hijab in public schools! Students in some old missionary schools had resumed school with their hijab, but for reasons best known to them, Christian leaders in the schools (who are only symbolically honoured to monitor the school activities) prevented the students from resuming classes and sent them back home. They were allowed entry only if they could remove their hijab. Meanwhile, the governor of the state, AbdulRahman AbdulRazaq, declared that:

“All the schools are government-controlled and fully funded; they are not Christian schools. No doubt, the schools were started by missionaries in Kwara State but in 1974, Yakubu Gowon’s government passed a decree taking over all the schools in the state, so, the missionaries lost schools to states. Kwara State took over the schools but out of sentiment, did not change the names of the schools like most other states did. So, when the Hijab issue came up in some states, they went to court and it was ruled that the students who wish to wear the hijab, could do so. Any private school can have their own uniform and insist on what their students must wear but female students in government school can wear their hijab, that’s what the court said.” Vanguard

Reacting through an official statement, Kwara government further said, “Arguments over years that these schools still (belong) to either the Muslim or Christian missionaries (have) been flatly rejected by the court. So, the government totally rejects the claims some organisations are still laying to these schools because such claims are not known to the law. That some of these schools retain the names of their founding organisations is purely honorary and in memoriam of their contributions to education does not translate to such missionary bodies owning the schools. This is a matter that has been settled in the High Court of Kwara State and the Court of Appeal.….” The Punch

Historical Record Of Religious Harmony Among Early Beleivers

It is noteworthy that the early Christian and Muslim believers were never embroiled in mutual suspicion leading to subtle and expressed bigotry against each other. In the early days of Islam, the Holy Prophet Muhammad sent a party of Muslims to live in Abyssinia, modern-day Ethiopia following the suffocating persecution the Muslims faced in Mecca when the pagans of Mecca were hellbent on snuffing out life out of anyone who publicly practiced (or was caught practicing) Islam. The king of Ethiopia generously welcomed and accommodated the Muslims.

In a similar vein, a party of Christians once visited the Holy Prophet (saw) for some religious discussion. The dialogue, which took place in the mosque, continued until it was time for prayer (by the Christian guests). They immediately sought to excuse themselves and offer their prayer service outside the mosque. The Prophet (saw) said that the mosque in which they were was a house of God and they were welcome to offer their prayers there. So, they offered their prayers in the mosque of the Holy Prophet (saw). (Ibn Hisham, I, 575-577).

In 628 C.E. the Holy Prophet of Islam (peace and blessings be upon him), at the height of his leadership, announced following Charter of Privileges to the monks of St. Catherine Monastery in Mt. Sinai. It contained a comprehensive provision for the rights of Christians and was envisioned to last even beyond the life and time of the Holy Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him).

“This is the document which Muhammad, son of Abdullah, God’s Prophet, Warner, and Bearer of glad tidings, has caused to be written so that there should remain no excuse for those coming after. I have caused this document to be written for Christians of the East and the West, for those who live near, and for those of distant lands, for the Christians living at present and for those who will come after, for those Christians who are known to us and for those as well whom we do not know.

  1. Any Muslim violating and abusing what is therein ordered would be regarded as violator of God’s testament and would be the breaker of His promise and would make himself deserving of God’s curse, be he a king or a subject.
  2. I promise that any monk or wayfarer, etc., who will seek my help on mountains, in forests, deserts or habitations, or in places of worship, I will repel enemies with all my friends and helpers, with all my relatives and with all those who profess to follow me and will defend him, because they are my covenanted. And will defend the covenanted against the persecution, injury, and embarrassment from their enemies in lieu of the poll-tax they have promised to pay.
  3. If they will prefer themselves to defend their properties and persons, they will be allowed to do so and will not be put to any inconvenience on that account.
  4. No bishop will be expelled from his bishopric, no monk from his monastery, no priest from his place of worship, and no pilgrim will be detained in pilgrimage.
  5. None of their churches and other places of worship will be desolated destroyed or demolished. No material of their churches will be used for building mosques or houses for the Muslims, any Muslim so doing will be regarded recalcitrant to God and His Prophet.
  6. Monks and bishops will be subject to no tax or indemnity whether they live in forests or on the rivers, or in the East or West, North or South. I give them my word of honor. They are on my promise and covenant and will enjoy perfect immunity from all sorts of inconveniences.
  7. Every help shall be given them in the repair of their churches. They shall be absolved from wearing arms and shall be protected by the Muslims. Let this document be not disobeyed till the Judgment Day.” (Al-Wasaiq-ul-Siyasiyya, pp. 187-190 quoted by Mukhtar Cheema, pp.42-44

What better example of religious tolerance can we show against what the early Christians and Muslims demonstrated?

The Need For A Roundtable

It is instructive to note that this policy neither makes hijab compulsory in any public schools nor forces any private schools to adopt a neutral ground. In other words, while it is optional for students in public schools, private schools can decide to rule against the wearing of hijab in their schools. So, this should not be a hard nut to crack for anyone favourably disposed to peace. If the schools are fully funded by the government, then it suggests everyone is indirectly contributing to the finance of the schools. It thus makes it sacrilegious for any one group to arrogate to themselves the right to decide for others in such an instance. While proffering a solution to the seemingly intractable hijab bigotry, Prof. Ochonu wrote:

“…Neither Nigerian law nor the basic principle of religious freedom contradicts the new policy. Christian religious organizations whose missionaries established some of the public schools and which do not like the new policy can establish new schools that would be private and would allow them to implement a no-hijab uniform policy.”

“Alternatively, they can renew the long-running but largely abandoned struggle for public schools with missionary pedigrees to be reverted back (sic) to their Christian denominational ownership. But that is a different, national struggle, not a Kwara-specific one, and it is totally unrelated to the hijab issue at hand.” Ochonu added.

Corroborating this position, Simon Kolawole, the publisher of The Cable online newspaper said:

“The schools where crisis has erupted are owned and funded 100 percent by the state, not by any church or mosque. Anybody who feels aggrieved by government policy should please go to court rather than stir strife. Self-help will only worsen matters.” Vanguard

Honestly, there appears to be no better solution to the recurring needless misunderstanding and occasional fracas over hijab use. This, I feel, is a more worthy cause, and one that could surely give Christians Missionaries full authority over their schools, as now desired by them. To think that a Muslim student cannot dress in any public school in a manner that is not repugnant to the law simply because the school was originally owned by Christian Missionaries is to be enamored by daydream. Such thought would forever remain an illusion, or at best result in frequent fracas as witnessed in recent times. It is disgraceful that the teachers who are supposed to act as loco parentis to the innocent children have shamefully turned themselves to religious bigots ignorantly destroying the relative peace in the society. These are the same teachers who teach civic education in schools and hypocritically teach religious freedom in churches.

It is noteworthy that development is a function of unity, cooperation, and peace. What many Christian folks, who are caught up in this web of needless bigotry, seem to take for granted is that such recurring acrimony can only increase mutual distrust and social disharmony –atmosphere that impedes growth and development. It is best to demonstrate the true teaching of Jesus Christ (as) in showing love to all and sundry regardless of their origin or religious practice.

While this continues, it is important to be wary of sowing deep-seated hatred among innocent young minds who ordinarily have no reason to hate each but are now deliberately and systematically taught hatred towards others on account of their religion. It also teaches them that modest dressing that conforms to the rules of other religions, except theirs, is unacceptable and repugnant to mind.

In an atmosphere where such is allowed to go unchallenged, the society is ignorantly exposed to mutual suspicion and disregard for the rights of choice of others. This is a flagrant disrespect for the fundamental human rights of others and a subtle overthrow of their right to choose for themselves. A society where one people assume the sole authority to decide what other people wear and how it is worn is nothing but a narcissistic society. Peaceful societies are built not on forced cooperation but rather on compromise, mutual understanding, and mutual respect.

In the following lines, Farooq Kperogi, a professor of Communication and Media at Kennesaw State University, gives his final thoughts:

“Nonetheless, while Christian missionary schools have unquestionably done a lot to expand access to education and equip people with lifelong and lifesaving skills, we must recognize that Nigeria has evolved. Part of that evolution is the emergence of the hijab as a symbol of female Muslim identity…many, perhaps most, Muslim women have been socialized to see the hijab as the definitive sartorial assertion of their Muslim identity. Perhaps precisely because of this fact, the hijab now stirs negative emotions in so many Christians.

“We need to have an honest national conversation about why the hijab triggers such extreme bitterness and hostility in some Nigerian Christians. Why has it been weaponized to stir bile and reinforce toxic prejudices against Muslim women when its wearing doesn’t hurt Christians?